September Update

The other day I sat down and watched Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. While it’s hard not to lament what could’ve been–a Dune movie that involved Moebius, Chris Foss, H.R. Geiger, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and more besides–I came out of it feeling creatively energized. The Jodorowski that emerges through the film is an iconoclastic weirdo who has a vision and boldly pursues it. He’s the kind of guy who refers to the key creative people helping him as his “warriors,” and who sought to make a film that would be a “prophet” that changed mankind. Even though it didn’t come together because of the studios being unwilling to finance it, his vision still profoundly influenced science fiction, and he further went on to put as much of that vision as he could into comics. I don’t think I have the wild-eyed ambition to aspire to make a prophet or to bug Mick Jagger to be in a movie, but I can’t help but admire Jodorowski for it. For me it hasn’t been all that unusual to start on a project and then eventually discover that for one reason or another I actually needed to try doing it in a completely different medium or otherwise radically change my approach.

I kind of feel like I’ve been sliding towards being a guy who makes various kind of things that use words in interesting ways, of which RPGs are just one component. And I think I’m okay with that. The thing I like the most about where I am now is that I feel empowered to just make stuff. My self-published stuff now includes two books and three cards games (and one of the card games now spans four different products). A whole lot of people come off as though they’re waiting for someone to give them permission, but we’re at about the best time in human history (so far) for having tools to let a person make a vision happen and reach people. I’ve pursued some downright quixotic projects, but I’ve been able to make them happen without breaking the bank. I think I spent roughly $400 on I Want to be an Awesome Robot in all, which for my self-published stuff is way at the high end. For Miyuki Days I used a piece of pixel art I had commissioned for something else a while back and a bunch of public domain and creative commons art, so the monetary expenses basically amounted to getting a proof printed. All of that isn’t to say I don’t want to do more ambitious projects as well, just that I think there’s something to be said for blazing through bringing a simpler project to fruition by myself sometimes. The sense of accomplishment is certainly help me keep up some kind of creative momentum.

Magic School Diary

I’ve wanted to make something or other about a magic school for ages, and even started building up a particular one in my head: the Mage Academy. MA is a relatively new American school, and its founders wanted to create a modern institution and overcome the flaws they saw in the older schools. (So yes, it is in part a reaction to the many harmful and sometimes just plain baffling aspects of Hogwarts.) I had a few different ideas for what medium it would actually use, from an RPG to a novel to a solo RPG, and more recently I hit on the idea of presenting it in the form of a sort of journal book. There are a fair number of journals and such that give suggestions and guidance for what to write about, and in some cases, for various non-writing things to do. I have a book called 642 Things To Write About, which is a collection of writing prompts with lines to write on. There’s also Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, which is a brazenly transgressive series of tasks to deface the book in various ways. (Some of her other books seem a little calmer, more about building up something though.) The’re the Listography books too, which ask you to create a sort of autobiography in the form of various kinds of lists. And of course there’s the children’s activity books, which I wound up researching a bit for the weird Fun Activities section of I Want to be an Awesome Robot. Personally I’m the sort of person who normally doesn’t write in books at all (not a moral thing or anything like that; it’s simply something that doesn’t normally occur to me to do), but there’s something neat about books that are meant for it.

Although there’s a lot of semi-antecedents, as far as I know, I’m making the first such book to be all about guiding the reader in creating a narrative. In the book’s story, MA is trying out a “Magic School Diary Program” to help students maintain a personal timeline (in case temporal weirdness happens) and provide basic “study activities.” The activities serve as an excuse to add Fun Activities to the proceedings, including learning a (made up) runic alphabet, collecting leaves for a spell, and finding a plushie to be your familiar. A portion of the entries will call for rolling dice for ideas or to see what happens next, and while the book leaves a lot of room for the user to find their own story, there’ll also be some storylines woven into the book.

"Universal Runes," which a friend of mine designed, originally for a sci-fi/fantasy campaign I was running several years back.
“Universal Runes,” which a friend of mine designed, originally for a sci-fi/fantasy campaign I was running several years back.

As much as I liked the diary writing solo RPG concept, the Magic School Diaries solo RPG I had started working on was set to balloon to a pretty massive size, with lots of tables providing events, NPC reactions, and so forth. Not having rules for character stats and such limits certain things about the journal version, but it’s also freeing in a lot of ways. Being onto something that’s a bit sui generis is also pretty phenomenally exciting, though it also carries any number of challenges, the biggest of which being the question of figuring out the right balance of the various kinds of content and activities to sustain someone through 300 or so pages. To start with the plan is to put the book together in Word (with an Excel spreadsheet to help me plan stuff out) and get some POD books made so I can test it out. That’s going to take some time, but if it works out well I could see doing a Kickstarter to pay to hire people for artwork, graphic design, and layout to make it as pretty as I’m imagining it could be.

Card Games

On the card game front (which is a thing in my life now apparently), I got Miyuki Days and The Bird Game up for sale on DriveThruCards. The Bird Game is fun, but it was always a weird joke, so I kept the graphic design of it deliberately basic, though I didn’t go into purposely bad Comic Sans territory or anything. For Miyuki Days I also stayed fairly simple, though putting a different icon (from The Noun Project) on the back of each of 50 cards did add a fair amount of time to the process (though Data Merge made it much less painful than it could’ve been). Unlike i.hate.everyone, they have few enough cards to actually come at a reasonable price despite being POD, so they’ve actually sold a few copies. They were both fun to make and fun to play with. I’m still planning to make some more Five-Card Fictions decks to follow Miyuki Days, but they take time and I have a bunch of other things going on.

IMG_0310
The major new thing in the Deluxe Edition of The Bird Game is the addition of a set of pre-made prompts. To keep down the number of cards, I made 12 cards with 6 prompts each.

IMG_0311

Slime Story

The big thing I’m currently working on for Slime Story is working on the selection of monsters. I had some figured out already, and I bought the newest Pokemon Pokedex strategy guide to look at for inspiration. On the whole I’ve set myself a difficult task though, since Slime Story monsters are supposed to be neither humanoid nor outwardly artificial, which cuts out a bigger swath of possibilities than you might think.

Other Bits and Pieces

  • I am writing something for my friend C. EllisMadoka Magica fan book. It’s exciting, though I’m just getting started.
  • I am going to be writing something for Ettin’s Breakfast Cult game. Surprising absolutely no one, I’m going to be writing stuff about magical girls. Having just enough clout that people are asking me to write RPG stretch goal material is goddamn weird, but also kinda cool.
  • The artwork for Fantasy Friends and Faerie Skies is coming along nicely, and I’m hoping to send the manuscripts to an editor soon as well. I’m planning to share some in a Kickstarter update soon.
  • For Star Line Publishing, we’re in the early planning stages of a Kickstarter for the first official Golden Sky Stories supplement, and we’re also very seriously looking at some other possible games to license.
  • I have been working a little bit on the “Hand Maid Edition” of Maid RPG (the idea being to produce a smaller, sleeker rulebook), including reworking the steward rules a bit (since I was planning to include them in the book), with the aim of making them better able to facilitate equal-opportunity fanservice.
  • I have some ideas percolating for Magical Burst. I’m probably going to wind up doing another massive revision.
  • I am playing Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 3, because apparently the video game that interests me most right now is in Japanese and was published in 1998. It’s a mixture of visual novel stuff with grid-based tactical combat, and it’s a lot of fun.

Inclusivity Stuff

For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity, about identity politics, and about my role as a creative person. I feel like I’m in the middle of a slow and at times painful process of coming into my own as a game designer, and I’m at a point in my life where “game designer” is about the only label I kinda’ sorta’ feel like making a part of my identity. I am big on gaming and anime, but there are a plethora of reasons why I have a hard time thinking of myself as a “gamer” or “otaku.” Some of it is that there are elements in those fandoms that don’t make them feel like the most complimentary labels to wear, but there’s also the fact that in the areas where I have respect for gamerdom and otakudom, I feel a bit inadequate, as I watch anime sporadically and with odd preferences in recent years, and my gaming habits are pretty out there. (The last video game I played really seriously was Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 2, which for those keeping score at home was originally released for PC Engine in 1995.) My creative works express who I am a lot better than my media consumption, so you can see a lot more of who I am as a person from I Want to be an Awesome Robot or even Channel A than from looking at my DVD shelf.

That in turn means that for issues like diversity, there are arenas where I have very direct control and the responsibility falls primarily on me. Although I’m finding I love when artists I hire for game art surprise me (as James Workman and Clove have done many times working on art for Fantasy Friends and Faerie Skies), whether there is, say, a brown-skinned character on the cover of one of my books is something I determine when I write up art specs for the cover illustration. That isn’t to say that people who don’t create games don’t have a voice–far from it, and I’m very grateful for those who have spoken up–but simply that these are decisions that are getting up in my face, and they’re doing so for something that defines me, so I want to get it right.

I would not have imagined that my air nymph character would've wound up looking like this, but I love it.
I would not have imagined that my air nymph character would’ve wound up looking like this, but I love it.

Continue reading

Slime Story (Now Powered by the Apocalypse)

RitaI had the idea for Slime Story around 2006, while I was playing Maple Story (which, somehow, is still running, so it’s had a lifespan that’s virtually unheard of in free-to-play games). It’s a Korean-made MMO/sidescroller hybrid, and thanks to spending a couple dollars on cosmetic equipment I had a girl walking around in a pleated skirt and raglan shirt, whacking monsters with a spiked club thing while listening to music on her headphones. That image became Rita (pictured to the right), who in turn became kind of a signature character for the setting. She’s an archetypal Slime Story monster hunter, and she has a popular video blog about monster hunting.

The setting is a world like ours, except that 10 years ago one-way portals opened up all over the world, dropping these MMO-like monsters into the world. It turned out that certain pieces of these monsters were useful for various purposes, from weapons to obscure industrial uses to healing potions. In many places the portals became the property of corporations or warlords, but in other places subcultures of monster hunters have popped up. In small-town America, monster hunters are mostly teenagers looking for spending money or just something to do. A company called Monster Mart has dominated the business side of monster hunting, and is the easiest place to do trade-ins and buy monster hunting gear.

It took a while for it to come together, but the first full Slime Story RPG I wrote had a manuscript of some 47,000 words. It more or less worked, but it wasn’t ever quite right, and I didn’t know how to fix it. As soon as I entertained the idea of making it as a Powered by the Apocalypse game, it started to fall into place. The first thing that really made it for me was the idea of dividing fights into mobs and raids, and handling mobs with a few quick die rolls–the “fight mobs” move. The previous game had fairly detailed combat for every single fight, whether against a dangerous dragon or mopping up slimes, and the whole concept of “summarizing” some fights is I think something I’m going to be playing with a lot in the future. It’s winding up owing a lot to Monsterhearts, but then my game is about teen drama too, albeit with a bit more of a Kevin Smith vibe, or maybe Rainbow Rowell if you prefer. Where Dragon World has a lot of my usual verbosity, so far Slime Story has a lot more of the economical writing style of Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, which I think fits.

Monster Geeks

The big thing I realized is that deep down Slime Story is going to be a commentary on how geeks socialize. Recent events in gaming have certainly been food for thought in that respect, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the contrast between what people are saying on the surface and what lies beneath. A lot of the harassment and such we’re seeing happening seems to be rooted in a fear of marginalization, for example. Which isn’t to say that geeky relationships are always bad–far from it. It’s also about friendships formed through common interests, I think. It fits into the “being human together” thing I’ve been talking about to the point where I added “Be human together” to the list of Agendas.

The setting presents monster hunting as a hobby scene and a fandom. That creates kind of a terrarium where we can look at an artificial model of a fandom, and play around with it at the distance that creating fiction allows. How that’s going to play into the actual game is something I need to think about more, but in the setting I’ve built up monster hunting has its own weird little subculture. There’s stuff like a nerdcore rap artist called who does monster hunting songs, a documentary about hunting a dragon in New England, a middling MMO based on monster hunting that’s influenced the terminology of the hobby scene, and MonsterCon, a yearly con held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It has its perennial issues (especially when it comes to their weird relationship with regular game hunting and firearms) and identity politics and so on. But being a physical activity mostly available in small towns (in cities portals tend to fall under the purview of companies or the authorities), it can develop more distinctly on a local level, like some kind of larp community stretching across the daily lives of a town.

Characters

Putting together character options is proving to be a really interesting exercise, since it’s a setting that cleaves a lot closer to reality that what I’m used to dealing with, and involves thinking about how people are in real life, trying to distill things down without resorting to caricature. That’s how I’ve ended up with things like the Geek’s “Looks” section turning out like this:

  • Nerdy T-shirt, worn T-shirt, or swag T-shirt
  • Overweight, scrawny, or average
  • Thick glasses, no glasses, or stylish glasses

One thing I’ve had to do is rethink the selection of cliques. I decided to keep the concept of characters having a clique and a class from the old version of the game (though it’s required some tweaks to make it work in the PbtA framework). Your class is how you fight monsters, whether with a sword (fighter), a bow and arrows (ranger), with cunning ambushes (ninja), etc., while your clique is how you function socially. Cliques were originally a set of stereotypes (Average, Geek, Jock, Popular, Punk, Weirdo), but I felt the game needed the cliques to reflect who a character is rather than the label being attached to them. A person who identifies as a “punk” could act like the queen bee, a “jock” could be a stereotypical bully, but could equally be really nice, or just really focused on self-perfection. (This also helps avoid having clique stuff overlap too much with class stuff.) The compactness of the playbook type format also makes it easier to make more of them, and it’s easier to keep from setting myself the task of squeezing out an inordinately long list of Talents for each splat.

For the time being I’ve settled on 8 classes and 8 cliques, just enough to cover some basics and fit in a couple oddballs in each category. While the cliques include the Geek and the Rebel, they also include the Touched, which is someone who’s started to commune with the slimes. This came straight from a Slime Story novel I want to write some day (“Slime Story: The Song of Michael”), and it generally plays into how the word “slime” being in the title is in fact really significant. The selection of classes meanwhile kept the ones in the old version of the game, but add the Mastermind (basically a leader/warlord type class) and the Tank (which is indeed a tank/defender).

Anyway, that’s about where I am with it right now. I’ve got my copies of Apocalypse World and the pocket Pokedex book on my desk to look to for ideas.

Funny Stuff

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

–E.B. White

The other day Jess Purdy interviewed me about Dragon World for GamerXP, and some of her questions got me thinking more deeply about humor and RPGs. The first RPG I played was Palladium’s Robotech RPG, but the first RPG I owned and GMed was Steve Jackson Games’ Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game. I was in middle school, and really big on cartoons, but I also liked funny movies, stand up comedy, and Monty Python pretty much as soon as I knew such things existed. I like serious and even sometimes dark things too, but I love funny movies, TV shows, stand up comedy, anime, comics, and so on. I’m a huge fan of Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Jackie Kashian, Gravity Falls, Azumanga Daioh, Cucumber Quest, on and on like that. Most of my friends are people I crack jokes with constantly. My interest in humor RPGs is partly an extension of that, and partly its own thing.

Part of why I like humor RPGs is that playing RPGs is a pretty silly thing to be doing anyway, so it only makes sense to embrace that now and then. They can be a great hobby that brings friends together to explore realms of imagination and all that, but the default RPG involves pretending to be an elf in a setting that can be downright contrived at times. It’s a pretty routine thing that the group needs some time to settle down before role-playing can even begin, much less be serious. That’s not to say that serious role-playing is bad–it can be nothing short of amazing at times–but I think there’s also something to be said for being silly. Certainly by all accounts Gygax’s D&D campaigns weren’t exactly Serious Business. One of my favorite stories stories from that time is the one where a player asked him what the monsters in the dungeon ate, and in response he made the dungeon feature a McDonald’s. His successors (and to a lesser extent the AD&D1e-era version of himself) tried to excise the funny bone from D&D, and I think this hobby is a little poorer for it, despite the likes of Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre trying to keep RPGs silly.

The big question is how exactly an RPG can go about fostering humor. Some of that is necessarily going to fall on the group playing it, but I don’t buy the idea that the game designer is totally powerless to help, here or elsewhere. I enjoyed the heck out of Toon back in the day, but looking at it again, with the benefit of hindsight, experience, and, you know, 20 years of new developments in RPG design, I find it lacking in certain ways. It’s not obvious, but Toon is in a lot of ways a silly version of GURPS. The basic layout and structure of the book bears a very strong resemblance to the 3rd Edition GURPS Basic Set, and the rules are a lot like a simpler GURPS with Looney Tunes tropes and more randomness. Character have Hit Points, but running out means they Fall Down and then come back in 3 minutes. Instead of Advantages there are Shticks, but they have point values all the same. The Toon supplements had their moments, but there were also a lot of times when they seemed to miss the point. The Car Wars takeoff in the Tooniversal Tour Guide book (“CarToon Wars”) had rules for building a car by spending dollars, and while you could buy a cream pie cannon, there wasn’t any sign of stuff like Freakazoid’s sudden use of “16 Hours of Tony Danza” as a vehicle-mounted weapon. There’s a spontaneity to old-school cartoons that Toon sometimes struggles with, and other times excels at. It was certainly the first game where I encountered d66 tables of random things that can happen, even if they’re a highly informal tool for the GM (“Animator” in Toon parlance) to use.

I recently read the book The Humor Code, by the team of psychologist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner. It chronicles their globe-spanning journey in search of what makes things funny, covering far-flung places like Tanzania, Japan, Denmark, Israel, and Palestine. McGraw’s pet idea about humor is what he calls “benign violation theory,” which is essentially the idea that humor emerges from a violation–of expectations, or mores, etc.–that turns out to be benign. This is fairly similar to the idea I was developing, that humor comes from thwarting perceived expectations. (The “perceived” part because, for example, you know Homer Simpson is going to be dumb, but the clash between that and the expectations of a grown man can still create comedy.) A pun plays havoc with our expectations of what a word means, and while it can be a cheap form of humor, puns get reactions. The “benign” part helps explain why some things aren’t funny that otherwise could be. What constitutes a benign violation is going to vary greatly from person to person, but there’s a line beyond which people think you’re being an asshole (or just gross) rather than a joker, as the likes of Daniel Tosh and those Danish cartoonists (who apparently have much more nuanced views than people give them credit for) learned the hard way. Likewise, different people have different ideas about what constitutes a violation in the first place. For example, in Japan there was an incredibly popular 4-panel manga called Sazae-san, and it’s barely comprehensible to Westerners because it derives so much of its humor from violating very distinctly Japanese expectations. Even having studied Japanese language and culture for many years, Sazae-san strips often have me intellectually going, “Oh, this is an amae thing” rather than just laughing.

I don’t think there can ever be a silver bullet for making things funny, but I do think benign violation theory is a useful starting point, especially just for the duration of this blog post. McGraw consciously put it to use putting together a stand up comedy routine, and although it didn’t kill, it did get laughs at one of the biggest comedy festivals in the world despite him being a psychologist rather than a comedian doing sets week after week. Of course, things like a stint as a clown on a mission to Peru with the Gesundheit Institute (which is the real-life Patch Adams’ current project) and generally rubbing elbows with funny people all over the world may have also done a lot to hone his comedic sensibilities.

Maid RPG is a pretty fascinating game, and for a lot of people the word “violation” kind of sums it up. Where it bothers people is pretty much exactly where the violation stops being benign, and even I’m not fully comfortable with everything in it. On a more mundane level, part of its central conceit is the idea that we have a master-servant relationship, but the master is weak, the maids are incredibly powerful, and there are shenanigans that cross that divide. Similarly, although the random rules do allow for considerable disparities in power (although it’s not common, you could conceivably have a group where one maid has a stat at zero and another has a stat at 4), the rules also give players judo-like tools for overcoming those disparities. For some people the mere presence of the maids is enough to make it a non-benign violation, while for others the presence of underage characters is where the line gets drawn. (This is a big part of why if I were doing it now I would’ve handled the localization of Maid RPG very differently.) The acute level of randomness in the game creates violations of a much simpler kind, giving us the occasional chainsaw-wielding cyborg mermaid, or tea party interrupted by a ninja attack interrupted by the mansion turning into a giant robot.

With Dragon World I’m trying to distill what I’ve learned from years of experience with Toon and Maid RPG (and to a lesser extent Teenagers From Outer Space and the West End Games Ghostbusters RPG), and a bit from a lifetime of loving comedy as well. One of the key things in Dragon World is the use of Temptations. Each character has two of them, which can be things like Food, Women/Men, Love, Treasure, etc. This echoes how in the Ghostbusters RPG characters would have goals like Sex or Soulless Science, and how although it’s not as explicit, Maid RPG characters often have desires that define them, whether they’re things that the many random tables put in place (wanting to take revenge on the master, obsessively shopping when stressedout), things that the game and/or scenario suggests (wanting to please the master, wanting to be the one picked as his bride), or things that the player discovers along the way (having your character fall in love with another maid). On a similar note, Teenagers From Outer Space gets a lot of mileage out of playing havoc with teenagers’ sex drives, putting alien customs and physiology or just contrived happenstance in their way. For me this is kind of a post hoc rationalization though, in that the real reason I put it in my game was because in Dragon World‘s source material, most characters are constantly at the mercy of their temptations. Lina Inverse loves food, enough to point at a menu and say, “I’ll have everything from here to here.” And because she’s a magical hobo, she can end up having to dine and dash despite being a genius sorceress, or be welcomed as a hero only to shock her hosts with the appetite she’s worked up.

I think characters having strong desires is actually a pretty standard thing in comedic stories, because it drives situations that can create violations. Stories tend to use different kinds of desires in different ways in order to keep them sufficiently benign, but we seldom ignore them, if only because if a story ignores something, then for all in tents and purposes it might as well not exist. Comedy usually meets a desire for sex with frustration, but will often use the fulfillment of a desire for food as a launching point, or (in the case of Slayers) as the comedic event in itself. The villain’s desire for conquest is virtually always thwarted, but we get laughs from the details. The Dark Lord himself turns out to be a buffoon, or despite being so mighty himself he has an endless parade of idiots working for him. That’s not the only way that Dragon World creates benign violations–most every class is in essence a combination of a noble profession with a ridiculous foible, for example–but it’s one of the most important.

One of the things that makes Dragon World a little different from a lot of other humor RPGs is that it assumes an ongoing, multi-session story. Games like Toon and Maid RPG don’t prevent you from running longer campaigns, but their orientation is much more towards episodic if not outright one-shot play. Aside from fitting with the source material, I’ve found that Dragon World‘s continuing stories create an ongoing context for the humor to take place in. It’s possible to create humor that doesn’t require a wider context to work, but it’s a heck of a lot harder. It takes a special kind of talent to make a brief comic strip or a tweet laugh out loud funny, and only people with a certain genius do so with any frequency. With an ongoing situation, you can build up more internal expectations to violate. The other thing about Dragon World, one of my favorite things about it, is that it still has the capacity to be serious. Not always, or even often, but it has those moments. Some of my favorite comedy, whether it’s Red vs Blue or Slayers or one of Patton Oswalt’s stand up comedy acts, has its serious moments, when the humanity behind the humor boils over. You have to earn those moments, but they can be nothing short of amazing.

August Update

Time for some updates on various projects again!

Dragon World

Dragon World wound up being the project that I settled on to concentrate on. Of my too-many RPG projects it’s the one that’s probably the closest to fruition, the one that’s been the smoothest and most fun in playtesting. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m generally in the mood to take the piss out of the fantasy genre, which seems to need that more than ever. I’ve made some small refinements to the rules, but a lot of the work I’ve been doing has been working on filling out the text, refining play advice, improving the DM moves, and adding setting elements. I also added the Shiny Paladin to the core classes, and I’ve been drawing on Inverse World for ideas on how to better express a setting.

Related to it, I’ve been reading The Humor Code, a book written by a journalist following a psychologist trying to build and test a theoretical framework to explain humor. I have a long blog post in the works about it, but the core concept of humor that I was groping towards was that the core of it is things that thwart (perceived) expectations. A pun thwarts our expectations of what a word means, a leader being a buffoon may be unsurprising, but it plays with perceived expectations, that kind of thing. This isn’t so different from the psychologist’s “benign violation theory,” which posits that humor comes from violations that turn out to be benign in nature, and I think helps explain why some things can take the form of a joke but not be funny. I’m pretty sure there can’t be a magic bullet for humor, but I think there’s a lot of potential in a humor RPG made with an awareness of a theoretical framework of some kind.

Oh, and when I mentioned that for the eventual Dragon World Kickstarter I want to have “& World” be a bonus thing, I got like three people expressing interest in making it. I need to get Dragon World ready first, but & World is definitely happening. I have no idea what it will actually be, but still. Also I kinda want the first supplement full of new classes to be called “Dragon World Class Collection I: The Codex of Gimmicky Weirdos.”

Five-Card Fictions

A while ago I picked up the book Second Person from the MIT Press, and more recently I ended up opening it up again after letting it sit on the shelf for a long time. One thing mentioned in it that I found especially fascinating was Life in the Garden, a sort of story toy where you have a set of cards with story snippets, and you shuffle them and draw 5, which you then read in order to form a story. Unfortunately it’s long out of print and used copies go for $120 or more, so I got inspired to try making my own similar games. I wound up starting on a project I call “Five-Card Fictions,” which will be a series of such games. The first one, which is now at the “fancy prototype” phase, is called Miyuki Days, and is a thing about a Japanese schoolgirl that is variously mundane, surreal, and yuri. I used icons from The Noun Project to add more of a visual element, and pixel art I commissioned a while back for the cover. I also added some suggestions for alternate ways to use the cards, both single- and multi-player.

tumblr_n9feuzC9iL1qfum8so2_1280After that I’m planning to do two more. The second is going to be Thralls of the Red God, a sword and sorcery tale. For the third I’m hoping to do something in the style of Jorge Luis Borges, but I’m finding it’s been long enough since I last read Borges that I need to get reacquainted with his work to really pull it off. (And after the third one I’ll stop and not run it totally into the ground.) Miyuki Days will be up on DriveThruCards before too long, while the others are going to take some time to get sorted out.

The Bird Game: Deluxe Edition

One of the weird little things in I Want to be an Awesome Robot (a book pretty much made of weird little things) is “The Bird Game,” a sort of self-parody in that it’s a mini Channel A style game where instead of anime you make birds. I decided to make a POD “Deluxe Edition,” which adds new cards, in particular “Question Cards” that save the Bird Czar the trouble of coming up with questions. That step had been taking forever, but somehow or other with some googling I managed to get it finished fairly quickly over the weekend. The game purposely has a little bit of a cheap look (no Clay Gardner graphic design brilliance for this one), using public domain photos of birds and such. It’s very silly, and it will also be up on DriveThruCards before too long.

Question Card BackWord Cards Back

Being Human Together

The past few weeks have been kind of bizarre for me. D&D5E and the issues surrounding it have me feeling pretty much done with D&D for the time being. I may wind up playing it if my friends really want to, but as things stand I’m not going to spend any more money on it. When all is said and done if I decide I really want the dungeon fantasy genre there are literally dozens of options, to the point where the only unique thing D&D really has to offer is the words “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover (and if you count different editions separately, there are about a dozen games with that distinction anyway). But of late I’m also just finding D&D’s mass of overdone cliches boring and stifling. I don’t want to be so negative about it, but it’s the truth that it’s really not doing it for me. On top of that, although the playtest of Magical Burst was informative, it was also exhausting, and left me with a great deal to think about, some of it much more fundamental than whether the witch’s Hex ability is overpowered.

After poking at about half a dozen different projects over the course of a week or so, I wound up starting pretty intensively brainstorming for Beyond Otaku Dreams. Of the games I’m trying to design it’s by far the most personal, and also the one that most eagerly embraces being a “story game.” My initial inspiration to take another look at it came from Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master, featured in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master. SWM is a descendant of MonkeyDome, a simple game that’s fundamentally about rolling to see what tone the scene takes (Grim/Zany in MonkeyDome, Glum/Jovial in SWM). Traditional RPGs are highly concerned with whether PCs succeed or fail at things, sometimes to the point of not having rules for much else. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there’s a massive, mostly unexplored territory of games that don’t bother with it. Fiasco is easily the best-known such game, and the results are often exceptional. Designing such games is at once incredibly liberating and incredibly hard, and I think I didn’t respect that enough when I made the first version of Beyond Otaku Dreams that just totally faceplanted in playtesting.

I’ve been going through a slow process of trying to really break down what I want Beyond Otaku Dreams to do and how to achieve it. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. One is that I’m trying to make a more fantastical version of real life experiences, so there aren’t really any existing narratives that quite fit what I want to create. Another is that it’s in relatively unexplored territory in terms of design, for RPGs in general and me in particular. Put those together and through a lot of the process I’ve been feeling a lot like I’m trying to build a castle on air. That’s led me to reexamine some of the games I have on hand and explore others. Designing a more traditional RPG gives you a bunch of cliches and habits you can fall back on, and I think stepping away from them requires a great deal of care and originality. I like to think I can come up with nifty ideas at times, but I’m not a natural game design iconoclast, so an important part of the process has been looking at what other people have done with such games.

In particular, it got me to take a closer look at my copy of the Norwegian Style book, an anthology of short RPGs from the Norwegian Style blog. It’s a window onto a very different style of role-playing, like looking into one of the possible parallel universes where RPGs came about without D&D.[1] Some have fantastical elements and some don’t, but all speak to the human condition in some way. Very few use much in the way of numbers, but many have little cards with words on them: character roles, events, scenes, etc. D&D grew out of certain kinds of wargames, and a huge portion of RPGs show that they grew out of D&D. That doesn’t make D&D or its descendants bad games, but despite them being numerous and popular, it does mean they represent a limited part of what the medium is capable of. There are an awful lot of things that can go into an RPG where the D&D approach basically amounts to handing you a blank page. (Want your character to be something more than a human fighter with these 7 numbers and a list of gear? Write something on this blank page.) The blank page offers freedom, but it also leaves you stranded with nothing to build on. Compared to that, the Norwegian Style games with their little cards catapult you into a rich character and situation. Other games deposit you at other points on the spectrum with varying degrees of success, and that’s one of the things I’m trying to navigate.

I came across Avery Mcdaldno’s blog post on Imaginary Funerals, which I think says something pretty profound about this hobby. Just like with anime fandom, whatever else it is, this thing we do is very human. That thread of thought met another coming the other way. I’m a huge fan of John Hodgman’s “Complete World Knowledge” trilogy, enough so that I went as far as to write my own book of fake trivia. The world he weaves, what Neil Gaiman called “Earth-Hodgman,” is often hilarious, but at times beautifully melancholy too. He’s said that that phase of his life is over, and he’s on to doing other things like the Judge John Hodgman podcast. One of the things that’s stuck with me is a particular turn of phrase. Towards the end of That Is All, he says that if it turns out Ragnarok doesn’t come, maybe some day he and the reader meet, and spend a moment enjoying being human together. I think “being human together” describes a lot of what I really want out of RPGs, especially right now. I can enjoy games that are more about problem-solving and tactics (and have done so extensively in the past), but I want more games that are more directly about the human condition, with or without genre fiction metaphors. I don’t care at all about what sells more or what’s more “sophisticated,” what is or isn’t “art.”[2] I just want games that exist first and foremost to help create experiences that mean something to me, to bring me together with friends.

So, that’s about where I am right now. It’s a really weird place to be in, but also refreshing in a lot of ways.


[1]Ben Lehman is of the opinion that the Norwegian Style games are more like a conscious attempt at making RPGs that are utterly unlike D&D, and in a hypothetical D&D-free world freeform fandom RP is more likely to have been the basis for RPGs. Either way at some point I really need to sit down and explore other forms of role-playing, including not only freeform but reading up on stuff like psychodrama.

[2]Art is a term that has a way of becoming useless any time you so much as glance at an edge case anyway.

Progress Sort Of

I wanted to take some time to write a bit about what I’ve been up to, admittedly in part just to not have that D&D post at the top of my blog. I’d rather think about making and playing cool stuff myself than worry about what’s going on elsewhere, and I have a heck of a lot of cool stuff going on. On the other hand I’ve had some writer’s block and had a hard time getting serious writing done, which is probably a lot to do with why I keep getting ideas for more random projects.

Magical Burst
I’m just about ready to wrap up my first playtest campaign of the 4th Draft. It’s exposed a huge number of issues with the game, and Versions 4.1 is going to take a good amount of work on various fronts. Right now I’m right about to where I need to step back from the project and mull over all the feedback I’ve gotten and my experiences with the playtest. One key thing I’m definitely writing into the GM advice is to let the magical girls have some semblance of normal lives, because that’s where a lot of the tension and drama of the game come from.

Golden Sky Stories Stuff
Apart from stuff like taking care of the few remaining packages that went missing or got returned, the major thing left to do with GSS is finish up the remaining original material. I was able to knock another thing off the to-do list when I found an artist for Faerie Skies, namely Clove, who among other things did the cover and some other art for Inverse World. He sent me the first of his sketches for Ellisandra the elf, and I am ridiculously happy with the results so far.

Dragon World
For some reason I got inspired to look at Dragon World again. This led to spending an evening reading through the 25k or so words I’d already written, and brainstorming more classes. Among others, I’m working on one called the Digital Invader, which is an MMORPG character being mysteriously projected into the fantasy world. I’m also making some minor tweaks to the rules here and there. It’s going to need more playtesting of course, but it’s looking really good, which I guess shows the advantages of building off of an existing system rather than trying to build one from scratch. Also, using this as an excuse to start watching the 52 episodes of Slayers I haven’t seen. I kind of want to Kickstart it, both to get it out into the world and to have the excuse to see what classes and such my various gaming friends and colleagues could come up with. (Ben Lehman already floated the idea of doing either a maid class or something based on Ryuuko from Kill La Kill.) Also possibly custom dice, though of course I’m getting way ahead of myself.

That also has me inspired to look at what else has been going on in the way of PbtA games. Since I already backed the Kickstarter I finally started reading Inverse World, which turns out to be pretty fantastic, particularly in how it evokes the setting. Likewise there have been some really great new third party Dungeon World playbooks like the Princess and the Dashing Hero. Although core Dungeon World seems really good at what it does, some of the third party stuff seems just spectacular, especially for the stuff where they weren’t beholden to D&D cliches. (And that’s before we talk about Monsterhearts, which is just astonishingly good.)

Slime Story
Looking at all this Apocalypse World-based stuff led me to think about the possibility of reworking Slime Story as a Powered by the Apocalypse game. Slime Story is a concept I came up with literally about 8 years ago, a present-day setting where mysterious magical portals have appeared and started dumping cute monsters like something out of a Korean MMO into the world, and while in many places they’re under the control of warlords or corporations, in suburban America a subculture of teenage monster hunters has arisen. The “Slime Engine” system that I’d been struggling to put together may eventually turn into a good base for Slime Quest (my anime/JRPG-influenced fantasy heartbreaker), but the more I think about it the more it seems a poor fit for Slime Story’s weird mishmash of monster hunting and teenage slice of life. Among other things, it definitely calls for a system where many monster fights are routine and come down to a few quick die rolls.

i.hate.everyone
I got inspired to finish and publish i.hate.bronies, the MLP-themed expansion to i.h.e, and further to do a prototype of i.hate.gimmicks, an experimental expansion with a bunch of stuff to try out new mechanics (which I’ll have to do some actual playtesting on). I also got inspired to do a Game of Thrones expansion. I was going to call it i.hate.thrones, but I realized that i.hate.joffrey might be a better name. It’s coming along slowly though.

Sharkicane vs. Dolphoon
Not an RPG thing, but after watching the RiffTrax Live of Sharknado I got inspired to write this incredibly weird story. The sharks are using dark magic to summon up the Sharkicane, and the dolphins may be our only hope. Also, I realized that the reason the people are being so slow and dumb when they should be evacuating right away is because the sharks’ sorcery has dulled their wits.

Beyond Otaku Dreams
And for an added bonus, reading Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master (in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master) got me thinking about Beyond Otaku Dreams. It’s a game I really want to make happen, as it’s based on personal experiences far more than any other game I’ve done. SWM has this intriguing thing where you roll to set the mood as either Jovial or Glum (with passing the dice around the table being an important part of how you play the game), which put me in mind of how Beyond Otaku Dreams is about a collision of Hope and Delusion. It’s incredibly tricky to figure out, since it needs to be a simple but carefully-made mechanism for group storytelling, and it generally gives me a feeling of trying to build a castle in the air.